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Archive for August, 2011

The Evolution of Middle-Grade Fantasy and Television


NOTE: I drafted this on my computer while I had power at a local café, but I’m posting it from home on my cell phone. As a result, some of my formatting may have gotten messed up. If so, I apologize: I’ll fix it as soon as I have power and Internet at home.

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget…the list goes on. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve started re-watching many of these shows, but I find that it is hard to re-capture my childhood appreciation. Most did not age well (or maybe I haven’t), but it is somewhat saddening to see stories I loved as a kid come off as puerile now. Interestingly, the books I read as a child do not suffer from the same problem. Why are the shows I watched at eight or nine unwatchable now, but the books I read at the same age still enjoyable? Have I just become some sort of egg-headed curmudgeon (obviously I have, but is that the cause?), or is there something different about these stories that affects their longevity?

Since Hurricane Irene knocked out our power for the last couple of days, I’ve had nothing to do but think about this while twiddling my thumbs by candlelight. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: what sets timeless middle-grade fiction apart from the cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s is the evolution of character and moral ambiguity.

The Quest Structure and Character Evolution in Middle Grade Fiction

Much of the middle-grade fantasy I read as a child (Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Quintet, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising) relied on the standard portal/quest structure. The youthful hero/ine has to leave home, find something, and return.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender showing Zuko.

Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, via Wikipedia

Their physical quest mirrors an evolution of their characters. As they progress through the various stages of their adventure, the characters are naturally changed by their experiences. Edmund Pevensie, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starts as a resentful, selfish child. His exposure to the White Witch’s evil changes him, as do his attempts to earn his siblings’ (and Aslan’s) forgiveness. At the end of the book, bratty little Edmund Pevensie ultimately becomes “Edmund the Just.”

In Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Taran learns that adventure is not the rollicking good time he supposes, and that heroes must make difficult choices.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg develops self-confidence and self-value through realizing that although she lacks her siblings’ more obvious gifts, her capacity for love ensures a central place within her family.

While adult readers might deride the portal/quest fantasy structure as trite, its ability to harmonize the characters’ emotional journey with their physical adventure continues to make it resonate. The key to that resonance, particularly for young readers, is how compelling the characters are. If the characters are uninteresting, no kid will ever enjoy the book. If those characters do not change, then young readers will rapidly outgrow the story (if they ever get into it at all).

Character Evolution in Cartoons

This kind of character evolution is distinctly absent from cartoons of the ’80s. At the time, cartoons were often made to sell toys, and by their very nature were more open-ended: the writers had to keep the story going until the show got cancelled. This presents its own storytelling challenges, and as a consequence, each episode tended to be a self-contained story arc, while the series as a whole had only the loosest overall structure. Typically a shows’ latter seasons – when the creators saw their series nearing the end of its viability – would often feature multi-episode or season-spanning plots which the creators hoped would finish a story. Yet despite this “innovation” in storytelling, each episode still needed to be self-contained, and characters never evolved greatly from one episode to the next. The Donatello we meet in the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the same Donatello ten seasons later: his experiences over the ten years of show continuity have not introduced any changes into the character’s personality or values.

When we look at more modern cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender, we see an entirely different structure at work. First and foremost, the story is no longer open-ended. The show’s creators set out to tell a story in three parts. There was never an intention to keep the show going through ten years of storytelling. Avatar The Last Airbender is similar to much middle-grade fiction in that it retains a quest structure at its macro-level and focuses on an over-arching conflict between our heroes and a “Dark Lord” villain. However, as in all cartoons, each episode remains a self-contained adventure within the confines of the broader story.

I believe that this innovation is enormously significant in terms of televised animated storytelling. Thanks to its structure, Avatar The Last Airbender is able to introduce character arcs that parallel the story’s plot arc. Over the story’s three seasons, we can watch Aang mature and take on his responsibilities as the Avatar, Sokka grow into the capable warrior he dreams of being, and Katara master water-bending and come to terms with her feelings for Aang. Each of the principal characters gradually grows and changes over the course of the show’s three seasons, which ultimately makes the series’ conclusion all the more satisfying.

Villainy in Middle-Grade Fiction and Cartoons

Another key difference lies in how “classic” cartoons portray their villains. The portal/quest fantasy has often been mocked for its stereotypically irredeemable “Dark Lord” (for a hilarious send-up, I strongly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel). And both middle-grade novels and cartoons feature this trope.

The Dark Lord’s goals tend to be suitably grandiose: take over the world/universe/whatever. But while the Dark Lord is portrayed as irredeemable and morally abhorrent, our heroes rarely face him until the final battle. Instead, their direct opposition usually comes from the Dark Lord’s lackeys, who are more complex characters serving the Dark Lord for their own (less inscrutable) reasons. Their goals are more localized: gain temporal power, get the respect they think they deserve, etc.

Whether it is Alexander’s Queen Archen, Cooper’s Walker, or Lewis’ Edmund Pevensie, the Dark Lord’s helpers are shown to actively make choices that align themselves with evil. Unlike the Dark Lord, their evil is never a given: they choose it for themselves. But in “classic” cartoons, the Dark Lords’ lackeys are just as irredeemably evil as their master. Whether we are talking about the Thundercats’ Slythe, the Decepticon Starscream, or Cobra’s The Baroness, the front-line villains have no depth; their motivations are rarely explored.

Moral Ambiguity in Today’s Cartoons

Fast forward twenty years, and you find an entirely new generation of cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender and the Cartoon Network’s reboot of Thundercats. Today, the irredeemable evil of the villain and the unquenchable goodness of the “good guys” is far more flexible.

Consider the rebooted Thundercats: in the first episode, we learn that the Thundercats have been repressing the dogs and lizardmen for generations. While our hero, Lion-O might oppose this level of repression, “the good guys” are generally depicted as racists. Or consider Avatar The Last Airbender. In the first episode, we learn that the Fire Nation has waged a century-long war of subjugation against the other nations, slaughtering an entire race (the Airbenders) in an unprecedented genocide. Within the first season, though, we learn that both this genocide and the war-torn century are a result of the Avatar (theoretically our hero) running from his responsibilities.

None of the “classic” cartoons from the ’80s would ever have explored a theme as morally ambiguous as Aang’s rejection of responsibility. Instead, each of these shows had to end with a moralistic “lesson” portrayed through the dénoument: remember those “knowing is half the battle” sequences at the end of GI Joe episodes? Such an externally-imposed mandate makes morally ambiguous storytelling difficult, if not impossible.

But middle-grade fiction has always had this type of moral ambiguity. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for promises of power and Turkish Delight. More recently, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a thief and kidnapper who performs morally abhorrent acts with (it turns out) noble intentions. Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm wrestle with the right-and-wrong of trapping all magical Everafters in a small rural town, and their friend is the Big Bad Wolf – a villain struggling with his past crimes. Susan Cooper’s Walker shows us that the “good guys” might not always do good, and that they too can betray – or seemingly betray – their friends. None of this even touches upon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with the moral ambiguity of Snape, Dumbledore, and Tom Riddle.

Avatar The Last Airbender probably offers us the most powerful example of how contemporary cartoons can treat villainy: when the series opens, Prince Zuko is the heroes’ primary opposition, and we watch him hunt the Avatar with intense zeal. However, by the end of the first season we understand that Zuko struggles through his relationship with his father (Fire Lord Ozai, the “Dark Lord” of the series) and with his own moral compass, personified by his Uncle Iroh. While Zuko represents the primary threat against the heroes, he is forced him into chasing the Avatar, and though we may not agree with his motives we at least understand them. His portrayal as an almost-sympathetic character makes his evolution that much more satisfying, as over the course of the three seasons we watch him gradually change from being the Dark Lord’s lackey to being one of the story’s principal heroes.

What are the Implications for Children’s Storytelling?

I think Avatar The Last Airbender, with its moral ambiguity and even-handed character arcs makes for innovative children’s storytelling, irrespective of medium. Avatar The Last Airbender’s treatment of Prince Zuko would be the equivalent of Queen Archen or the Horned King switching sides, and I have not seen much middle-grade fantasy take moral ambiguity to such lengths (though Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy – which may or may not be considered middle-grade – comes very close, and Joseph Delaney tries for it in The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch). The creators of the Thundercats reboot openly discuss wanting to make a darker, more cinematic story than the original cartoon (although Cartoon Network’s Friday at 8:30pm timeslot for the show might suggest they are aiming for an older audience). Personally, I think all of this represents an opportunity for writers of middle-grade and cartoons.

The success of Avatar The Last Airbender proves that the middle-grade audience enjoys complex storytelling, with extended character arcs and moral ambiguity. While some might say that shows like that are “too much for kids,” I could not disagree more: by blending childish adventure with more serious storytelling, they are doing what children’s literature has always done: helping kids develop a vocabulary with which to internalize and articulate a morally complex world.

In a real sense, I think this represents the gradual accrual of wisdom. If – thanks to more morally ambiguous middle-grade fiction or morally-challenging cartoons – kids are able to recognize, understand, and internalize a more complex world, then I think this can only be good. Doesn’t it suggest that kids are growing wiser sooner? And from a more crassly commercial standpoint, it also opens up “children’s” stories for an audience entirely outside of its intended demographic.

Who says grown-ups can’t enjoy good kids’ stories, anyway?

Recommended Blog Posts Works Mentioned
If you enjoyed this blog post, here’s a list of others that are on related subjects which you might find interesting:

Since I talk about a lot of different authors and titles in this post, here’s a list for your enjoyment. I’ve included some titles that don’t get mentioned directly, but which you might find fun/interesting:

Books:

Hurricane Irene


So as some of you may know, I happen to live in New Jersey. Thankfully, not on the shore, but still close enough to Hurricane Irene to get a bit beat up. Two days after the hurricane, we are still without power, phone, and (of course) Internet. I am writing this on a cell phone which has a perilously low battery.

Oh yeah, and a tree almost fell on my house. The key word there is almost. Nobody was hurt, nothing important was damaged, the garage is still standing. But things have been a little hectic for the past couple of days.

Having borrowed a car, I am once again mobile. Of course, most of the streets around my house are flooded (I distinctly recall telling my wife several years ago that “Living on a river will be great!”). Rumor has it that two towns away there is a Starbucks with coffee, wifi, and power. As I haven’t been able to make coffee, I might have enough caffeine-withdrawal rage to fight my way to that mythical plug. If I manage to triumph over the hordes and re-charge, I’ll try and get a real post up later today. Should my quest fail…but it won’t!

In the meantime, there are lots of people all along the Eastern seaboard who got hammered harder than we did. If you want to help, please check out the American Red Cross Hurricane Irene Relief

And for now, here’s a picture of the tree that knocked on our door late Saturday night:

That's My Garage Hiding Behind the Tree

REVIEW: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi


Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Author: Otsuichi
(translated by Nathan Collins)
Pub Date: September 21, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A carefully constructed collection of unsettling horror stories with purposeful use of language.

Maybe it’s because I spent a decade living abroad, or because both my parents are immigrants. But for whatever reason, foreign techniques in storytelling and art have always fascinated me. Now and again, I find myself going on a binge of reading from a particular part of the world, and several months ago I started a Japanese binge – made all the harder knowing nothing about the language, and having only local sushi joints and the little otaku pop-culture I’ve been able to observe as culture references. But in my blind stumbles around Japanese literature, I picked up Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse written by Otsuichi and translated by Nathan Collins.

This is subtle, literary horror from Haikasoru (an imprint of Viz Media that specializes in bringing Japanese genre titles to the United States). Reading it brought to mind old-school Gothic works by folks like Sheridan le Fanu or Daphne du Maurier, with some of the creepiness of Edgar Allen Poe. What made this three story collection stand out were the prose techniques employed by Otsuichi (or possibly his translator). Using word choice and sentence construction as the subtle thematic bedrock is a rare treat in the horror genre.

The first (titular) story was written when Otsuichi was still in high school, and it shows some of the still-rough techniques that he would hone in his later works. Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is told from the perspective of a nine year-old girl’s corpse, and I consider it to be the weakest of the three stories in this book. I cracked open the spine unfamiliar with Otsuichi’s writing or Nathan Collins’ translations, having been stung by particularly poor translations of other Japanese books in the past. As a result, the opening pages made me very concerned. The sentences were simple. Almost each one was a declarative statement. They were stilted. Choppy. The narrator’s observations were superficial and factual: this happened and then that happened and then something else happened. Reading these initial pages, I thought: “Great. Another lousy translation.” But I was wrong.

The unsubtle language that opens the story is purposeful. Otsuichi (and his translator) use simple sentence construction to put us in the head of his nine year-old narrator. As the story progresses, we watch through her eyes as her friend (and murderer) and her friend’s older brother try to hide her corpse. The narrator, in a child’s spare and simple language, tells us the facts of what happened, but the narrator’s understanding is limited by her age. Once she dies, the language grows more complex as her after-death experiences change her perceptions of the world. The transition happens subtly over the course of the story, and Otsuichi and Collins manage to make this transition smooth. If I were not looking for it, I might not have noticed it.

Once I realized that the author was doing this on purpose, I could get past the unsubtle prose and into the story. Despite being satisfied, I remain troubled by how superficially the narrator’s perceptions are presented. There was precious little introspection or abstract thought, and most nine year-olds I’ve met have some capacity for both. While this technique may be a cultural trait of Japanese fiction (Yasunari Kawabata excels at such purposefully superficial presentation), the degree to which it is employed in this story made it difficult for me to engage emotionally with any of the characters. However, the story’s disquieting ending relies on the narrator lacking an adult reader’s understanding of its implications.

The second story in the collection, Yuko is much shorter, much more powerful, and from my perspective, the best story in the book. Taking place in an indeterminate time period (could be present day rural Japan, could be any time in the last couple of hundred years), it follows a young, uneducated housemaid who takes care of a writer and his bedridden wife, Yuko. The housemaid, however, never sees, speaks with, hears, or interacts with Yuko, only with her husband. Scenes are presented from both the housemaid’s perspective (where Yuko never appears) and from the husband’s perspective (where he interacts with Yuko).

Reading this story, the beautiful language matters tremendously: the author and translator use lyrical, literate language and style to pull a fast one on the reader. That is not a bad thing. Throughout the story – almost to its end – the language evokes a conviction in the reader’s mind of one reality. And then with just one word – one word placed in just the right spot – it flips the reader’s genre expectations from horror to mystery. I had to go back to the beginning, and read it all again, before finishing the story with a new set of reading protocols.

That one word is the hinge on which Yuko pivots: before the hinge, the story is horror, generating that delightful sensation of creepy, disquieting terror. After the hinge, the terror is gone, replaced with an intellectual curiosity seeking an explanation: a mystery. When that explanation comes, the terror returns – but it is subtler, deeper, and darker than the Gothic terror inspired before that hinge.

Since reading this story, I’ve been wrestling with this technique. It is excellently executed, and manipulates the reader brilliantly. I had thought I was reading a Gothic horror story, and suddenly I found myself reading a Gothic mystery. Cleverly done. Yet at the same time, the technique stood out as a technique. It was like a slap in the face: there was no way I could have missed it. And I do not know if that is good or bad. Should the impact of word choice and sentence construction be noticeable to the reader as they are reading? Does seeing the mirrors ruin the trick? I loved this story, and the emotional ride it took me on. So I suppose it works. “Good” might be like pornography (and science fiction): I know it when I see it. But as a writing technique, I think it might be extremely risky.

The last and longest story in the book, The Black Fairy Tale, takes far fewer risks. It is a short novel told in three parts: the first is a grizzly, frightening tale about a raven who steals peoples’ eyes as a gifts for a blind girl. This was my favorite part of the story, with beautiful lyrical prose that tells a heart-breaking story of love, devotion, and the light and darkness of memory. The second part is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who loses her left eye, receives a transplant, and now sees her new eye’s memories. The final part is told from the perspective of the raven fairy tale’s author. On a superficial level, the teenage girl and the author’s story are linked: they come into gruesome conflict. Below that superficial level, the stories are unified by the fairy tale itself, with its focus on memory, vision, and detachment.

The emotional terror evoked by the story is its most powerful aspect. The story’s violence is depicted and described, and some of it gets fairly rough, but throughout it is handled tastefully; its horrific nature is in the emotional implication of what it does (or has done) to its victims. The story’s language, and in particular the gradual evolution and progression of imagery throughout the three parallel parts, makes this story a delight to read.

The book’s biggest problem is its organization. The Black Fairy Tale makes up over sixty percent of the book, yet it is the third story. The opening story – Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse – is the book’s weakest: I almost put it down before realizing that its unsubtle sentence construction was purposeful. I can imagine that many readers unfamiliar with Otsuichi or Collins might have given up without getting to the good part. A better way of organizing the book would have been to start with either Yuko or The Black Fairy Tale.

Regardless, the book is well worth reading. Fans of western horror will enjoy a title that hearkens back to the strong, subtle, emotionally resonant horror of du Maurier, le Fanu, and Poe. I think this is a good intro to Japanese horror and I’m definitely going to be checking out more from Haikasoru.

O Canada! Travels in Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror


As I mentioned last week, I’m off on my honeymoon at the moment. What I don’t think I mentioned is the fact that I’m honeymooning in the United States’ neighbor to the north. When the Professor and I mentioned honeymooning in Canada to most people, their reaction was usually one of considerate bewilderment: why not go someplace with warm, sandy beaches and fizzy drinks with little umbrellas? Well, both of us like rocky coastlines, lighthouses, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and tons of wonderful used bookstores. All this makes Nova Scotia pretty ideal.

And with a couple of days spent wandering through the stacks of some great used bookstores in Halifax, I thought I might give a shout-out to some of the Canadian genre creators who I’ve enjoyed:

Author Comments Good Titles to Start On
Margaret Atwood Putting aside Atwood’s semantic quibbles as to the definition of science fiction versus speculative fiction, her novels tend to be solid sociological treatises reminiscent of the 1970’s New Wave in science fiction. Her writing often reminds me Ursula K. Le Guin’s, although with a more starkly dystopic sensibility.

William Gibson Gibson’s name is synonymous with the cyberpunk sub-genre, and he is often hailed as one of the luminaries of early steampunk. His cyberpunk novels combine noir storytelling techniques with an often-prophetic depiction of near-future technologies, with his more recent works relying more heavily on prescient sociology sensitivity.

Guy Gavriel Kay Kay is an excellent fantasist who models his secondary worlds on real-world historical settings. Whether it is medieval Spain, Italy, Byzantium, or 8th century China, Kay’s depictions of settings and character paint a vibrant picture of times and cultures that most of us only know from history books.

Claude Lalumière Lalumière tends to produce dark fantasy short fiction notable for eliciting a quiet sense of unease. Language and characters are put to deft – though dark – use. His most recent novella (The Door to Lost Pages) stands out as particularly compelling.

Robert J. Sawyer Sawyer is a prolific science fiction author whose novels utilize hard science to probe more humanist concerns. His work tends to deal with the relationship between science and religion, as well as focusing on issues of self-identity. His books are fun, fast-paced reads whose seriousness sneaks up on you (at least they did on me when I first discovered his work some fifteen odd years ago).

Karl Schroeder A hard science fiction author who – for whatever reason – is grouped in my mind with Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson, Schroeder writes action-packed, fast-paced novels which rely on hard scientific conjecture for their settings and underlying premises.

Peter Watts Watts is a hard-SF author whose particular passion seems to be the biological sciences. If “genepunk” were a subgenre (and I think it damn well should be), then I would argue Watts for its doyen. His novels tend to be fairly dark and hard-hitting, and while they are not light on the science, they still manage to play effectively with the tropes of related genres (horror in particular).

Robert Charles Wilson Most of Wilson’s work is hard SF, though his earlier works veer towards the softer side of hard. My particular favorites are some of his earlier novels which play delightfully with concepts of time travel and most importantly reader expectations.

So without having the benefit of browsing through my bookshelves, that’s a list of fun Canadian genre authors I thought I’d share with all of you. Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend? Since I’m in Canada at the moment, I’d love to hear of any Canadian authors whose work has yet to appear in the United States. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Some Brief Thoughts on Love, Relationships, and Characters in Fiction


Over the course of the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Fiction focuses so much on characters, that I suppose it should come as no surprise that their relationships are so often central to the story. What would Don Quixote be without his Sancho Panza? Holmes without his Watson? C-3PO without his R2? Could we even have a Romeo without a Juliet? Or Cyrano without Roxanne?

A Typology of Fictional Relationships

There are as many types of fictional relationships as there are real relationships. We’ve got friends (Frodo and Gimli), partners (Holmes and Watson), lovers (Othello and Desdemona), rivals (Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and Ellidyr), and enemies (Val Jean and Javert), and a million and one shades of interstitial grey. But each type of relationship has some defining characteristics.

NOTE: Since I’m in a good mood, I’m going to skip the darker end of the relationship spectrum. I might share some thoughts on villainy and antagonism later (probably around election season) but for the time being I’m going to focus on the healthier relationships.

Friendship in Fiction: Always There, but Separate

Who are the great friends in fiction? They’re not Holmes and Watson: their relationship goes deeper than mere friendship, and has too many characteristics of a fictional partnership to be so easily classified. Instead, I think the defining characteristics of friendship in fiction is when the characters retain independence. Partners cannot exist without each other: they need each other to form a single complete unit. But friends can have lives and stories of their own: they are not defined by their relationship.

Taran Releasing Fflewddur Fflam in The Black Cauldron

Taran Releasing Fflewddur Fflam in The Black Cauldron, via AnimatorMag.com

Friendships like this that come to mind include Gimli and Frodo (or any of the fellowship other than Sam). There is clear affection between the characters: they care about each other, they can laugh together, are willing to fight and die together…but they are not their respective focuses (focii?). Fantasies have a lot of these kinds of friendships: in the Chronicles of Prydain, Taran has a pair of great friends in Fflewddur Fflam (I bet Lloyd Alexander’s proof-reader or copyeditor had a hell of a time spell-checking that name!) and Doli. Both Fflewddur and Doli could just as easily be the heroes of their own story: we just happen to be observing their actions in Taran’s Chronicles. Friends will always be there for each other, even when – like Gimli or Fflewddur – they go off on their own adventures.

Fictional Partnerships: Making a Complete Character

Partnerships are a much tighter bond between two characters. In these types of situations, the duo becomes effectively one character. Sherlock Holmes – the superhuman analytical machine – needs Dr. John Watson to humanize him. Without Watson there to temper the icy scalpel of his intellect, Holmes would be a caricature, not a character. He would be a sad, frustrated, lonely man. And as a fictional construct, we are made to care about Holmes through Watson’s cuddlier perspective.

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the Sherlock Holmes story The Greek Interpreter (via Wikipedia)

Frodo and Sam operate on a similar basis. Frodo’s quest defines him. The ring – and his duty – consume him as both an individual and a character. But Sam keeps Frodo firmly grounded in what matters to both Tolkien and – presumably – the reader: friendship, loyalty, and home. Without Sam there to shoulder the heroic burden, Frodo would be a drag (some would argue he still is, though I still like his story…because of Samwise Gamgee). The thing about these kinds of partnerships is that it really takes two to tango: either of these partners alone is only half of a character.

Love: Why do we remember the tragic ones?

I suppose fiction is full of happy love stories. But I spent a good couple of hours trying to wrack my brain to come up with some of them. Invariably, when I think of love stories, my brain goes to tragic romances: Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano and Roxanne, Don Quixote and Dulcinea, Arthur and Guinevere (and Lancelot), Othello and Desdemona. None gets a happily-ever-after.

But not all love stories end tragically, either in fiction or in real life. Marius and Cosette in Hugo’s Les Miserables. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Or in film, Han Solo and Leia Organa.

Most of the “happy” romances I just mentioned have lovers who are also partners. Unlike regular partnerships, however, each lover is a fully formed character. Holmes, Don Quixote, or C-3PO are rough caricatures without their partners. They could not operate effectively on their own: Cervantes depicts this explicitly in Don Quixote’s adventures before he hooks up with Sancho Panza. But in “happy” love stories, the lovers remain fully formed characters without their partner: they are just not likeable characters.

Benedick and Beatrice both need to have their wits balanced: if Benedick lacked Beatrice’s foil, then he would likely come off as a slightly snarkier version of Iago (ironically, both characters who have been excellently portrayed by Kenneth Branaugh on film). Without Lizzie there to puncture his pride, Darcy would come off as an unbearable ass. And without Darcy to lend Lizzie moral certitude, she would be a fairly bratty busybody. It is through their partners that lovers become loveable.

It all boils down to negotiating intimacy, and happy love stories do so through a combination of partnership and antagonism. It is no coincidence that Darcy/Lizzie, Benedick/Beatrice, Kate/Petruchio, Taran/Elionwy, Han Solo/Leia Organa, or Nick/Norah are defined by their verbal sparring. Without Solo’s irrepressible devil-may-care humor, Leia Organa would be a dull-as-doorknobs earnest senator. Unlike Holmes or Quixote, she is a fully-formed character without Solo to complete her. But who wants to deal with that level of humorless earnestness all the time? Han Solo makes Princess Leia sufferable, and even likeable.

Why am I harping on relationships, love, and partnerships?

Well, here’s why:

Photo from Chris & the Professor's Wedding, August 6th, 2011

Photo from Chris & the Professor's Wedding, August 6th, 2011 courtesy of SMBFZ


(sorry for the graininess of the image – it’s a screen grab from a friend’s awesome video from our wedding)

This past weekend, I married the smartest, most beautiful, funniest woman I have ever met. She is my best friend: she’s her own person, independent, strong-minded (extremely so, sometimes), and always there for me. She’s my partner: without her I’m just a caricature of a person. And she makes for a great complementary antagonist, able to poke holes in my (all too common) pretension whenever I need it (which is often). If she weren’t there, I’m sure I would be an insufferable jerk. But because she was silly enough to say yes, I’m hopefully a slightly less insufferable jerk.

She makes me the happiest guy in the world, and so I’m going to sign off from this blog now and go back to enjoying my honeymoon.

REVIEW: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke


Title: Let’s Play White
Author: Chesya Burke
Pub Date: April 26, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An quiet, emotional ride.

Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I – a middle-class white guy in my late twenties – had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let’s Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel’s excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.

It’s tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It’s tough to bring the totality of a character – incorporating both their personality and societal context – to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn’t that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book’s stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.

The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like “Walter and the Three-Legged King” or “He Who Takes the Pain Away” have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.

Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is an excellent noir story set in early 1930’s Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke’s spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I’ve come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But “I Make People Do Bad Things” instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman’s primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.

Both “Purse” and “What She Saw When They Flew Away” are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few – if any – fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in “Purse” I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson’s best work with Richard Matheson’s tactical use of violence.

Of the stories in this collection, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story (“Flower Garden”, which I’ve written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.

Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of “Walter and the Three-Legged King” unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story’s ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, “CUE: Change” stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator’s voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story’s resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn’t really work for me.

If you’re looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let’s Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!

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